WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will nominate Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, the former two-term governor of Washington and the son and grandson of Chinese immigrants, to be the next U.S. ambassador to China, a senior administration official said Monday. A formal announcement could come as early as Tuesday.
If confirmed by the Senate, Locke would succeed Jon Huntsman, one of the few Republicans in Obama’s administration. Huntsman’s recently tendered resignation is effective at the end of April, and he is eyed as a potential GOP challenger to Obama in the 2012 presidential contest.
The administration official requested anonymity to speak ahead of the formal announcement.
Locke, 61, who served as Washington’s governor from 1997-2005, was the nation’s first Chinese American governor and is the first to serve as commerce secretary.
He has deep personal ties to China.
His grandfather emigrated from China to Washington, where he worked as a servant in exchange for English lessons, according to the Commerce Department.
Locke’s father, also born in China, later ran a grocery store in Seattle.
Locke, 61, is married to Mona Lee Locke, a former Seattle television reporter. They have three children.
Paul Isaki, Locke’s former chief of staff in the Governor’s Office and also his foreign trade representative, said Locke’s confirmation in the Senate should not be a problem. He also said the appointment would be a good one for the United States and China, because Locke has made trade trips there and had to learn how China worked.
“The good thing for both us – meaning the United States and Washington – and China is that Gary has been dealing with China for a long time. He’s a very familiar, trusted and respected person among Chinese leadership at the highest levels,” Isaki said late Monday afternoon from his Seattle home.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, hours before word of his nomination began to spread, Locke touted the economic relationship he has helped build between the U.S. and China. He said U.S. exports to China had increased 34 percent last year.
Obama sees boosting U.S. exports as a way to save and create jobs as the economy continues its slow walk out of its worst slump in a generation. He has set a goal of doubling the amount of American goods that are sold to other countries within five years – an effort in which Locke has been a key cheerleader.
Locke said China is becoming more accessible to U.S. companies, though he said that progress has been slow in coming.
“We in government and the business community want more and faster progress,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go.”
The U.S. trade deficit with China reached $273.1 billion last year, the largest imbalance the United States has ever recorded with any country.
Before joining the Obama administration, Locke worked on China issues for a Seattle-based law firm. He joined the firm after declining to seek a third term as governor.
Staff writer Brad Shannon and McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.